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Innovative 'Sensory Room' A Boon To Lane Tech Students With Disabilities

By Linze Rice | March 21, 2017 5:53am
 A rendering of what the sensory room at Lane Tech could look like.
A rendering of what the sensory room at Lane Tech could look like.
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HKS Architects

ROSCOE VILLAGE — A new "sensory room" at one of Chicago's coveted selective enrollment schools would help focus and transform the learning experience for students with severe disabilities and sensory sensitivities.

Lane Tech College Prep High School, 2501 W. Addison St. in Roscoe Village, is raising money to build a specially-designed learning space within one of its rooms used by the school's special education program.

The design would include features which would stimulate or calm students with a hypersensitivity to light, sound, smell, touch or other environmental factors. 

Michelle Weiner, a Lane Tech alumna who heads the school's alumni association, explained what it's like for those students: "If you could imagine the sound of the bell every 45 minutes ... fluorescent lights overhead sounding like an alarm buzzer and flickering like a strobe light, the overwhelmingness of the white noise created by 4,000 humans pulsing through those the hallways every 50 minutes, it's stunning."

"For the average person ... it can be a little unsettling — for somebody who has sensory integration problems, it can be debilitating."

It can take up to a whole class period for students to get their bearings, she said. By the time a student is centered, class might be over.

A sensory room could help curb that.

What's A Sensory Room?

As part of Lane Tech's diverse learner cluster program, some rooms in the massive school are set aside to be used primarily by students with differing disabilities. 

One room features an apartment-style set-up that helps students learn everyday tasks and life skills, though the bedroom portion was often blocked off and used as a quiet space when students in the class needed time to calm down and refocus. 

As part of the room renovation, the room is to be replaced with the sensory "module" — a sort of mini-room within the larger classroom — which could potentially be up to 450 square feet. 

Students with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries, autism or microcephaly are among some of those who would utilize the room. 

"They have difficulties throughout the course of their learning day," said Lisa Adams of HKS Architects. "The educators basically wanted to create a room that would allow the students a space to refocus their attention during the day. Many of these students are challenged with sensory disorientation, they either become over-stimulated or understimulated." 

For students who experience over-stimulation, the room will have tools for sensory depravation such as dimmable lights, lowered acoustics and "igloo"-type structures to filter out outside smells. 

Conversely, for students who sometimes need stimulation, there are interactive, wooden push-pin-like blocks along the wall (which will be made by shop class students), towers of filtered, changing lights, liquid-gel floor tiles that respond to touch and space where touch-screen TVs can later be installed. 

Still in the early fundraising stages, Adams said she has an "ambitious" goal of beginning construction in the summer and completing it by the fall when students return to school. 

So far the alumni association has raised a little more than $16,000 for the room, with an overall goal of $140,000.

The former lofted apartment-style room that was used as a quiet area has been taken down and will be replaced by the sensory module. [Provided]

Creating A Culture Of Kindness

It wouldn't be the first school with a sensory room in CPS, but the custom design would be a one-of-a-kind for the "school of champions." 

Weiner, who graduated in the 1970s, said Lane has always been a welcoming environment but its programming for students with different needs wasn't as developed then as it is today. 

"Years ago there was no special ed really at Lane," she said, despite an occasional student with a hearing or vision impairment.

But today, the school is "promoting inclusion and creating an atmosphere where students with disabilities are empowered and confident, and students without disabilities are aware and just more generous," Weiner said.

One of the group's first donations for the sensory room came from a recent graduate who participated in the school's P.E. Partners program, which buddies up students with disabilities and students from the general population for gym class. 

Now a freshman at the University of Illinois, she sent in an initial $15 check followed by another $300 raised by her sorority. 

The inclusive environment is "creating a culture" of camaraderie, Weiner said.

Weiner's sons, who both have high-functioning Autism, studied among the school's mainstream population. But the experience of having kids with special needs at Lane Tech has been "eye-opening" as to how students with disabilities positively affect those around them.

"It's creating a culture and students springing from that culture that is a model for diversity and inclusion that you don't often see — especially in selective-enrollment schools," she said. "These special education classroom have created a whole other layer to that."

The school has been working on ways to implement such a room for the last five years, said Mollie Hart, an assistant principal at Lane Tech who helps oversee special education programming. 

But the project really began seeing momentum last year after Weiner met Adams at a fundraiser. 

Adams said each year the design firm commits to taking on design challenges for projects that benefit marginalized populations. 

The room's inclusion in the school would have a "tremendous impact" on her students, Hart said.

When Adams learned about Lane's desires for a room that could help its students with the most profound disabilities from Weiner, her firm signed on to help. 

Adams said she is working carefully on the design with the hope that it can become a model that could be easily replicated at other Chicago Public Schools buildings and civic structures across the city. 

Online donations toward the project can be made here.